Chess and Folks


I ACKNOWLEDGE a personal debt of gratitude to the old Quaker lady who remarked that ‘folks is folks.’ She meant, I take it, not only that human nature as a whole is much the same the world over, but that our several human natures are capable of classification among a number of broad, and more or less well-defined, subdivisions. If I get her meaning rightly, then my own scanty experience and limited observation — which do not for a moment compare with her superb cosmopolitanism — repeatedly corroborate the profound wisdom of her remark. Folks is folks. And folks fall into classes as inevitably as coal falls into its various pockets. This I say, despite the fact that I am a thick-and-thin, bitter-end, stand-pat individualist, with a magnificent scorn for all the precisianism and mechanism of modern psychology.

Speaking of psychology, in its earlier and safer days psychology took note of at least three great classes or subdivisions of human nature. They were called, I believe, temperaments, and they were the sanguine, the bilious, and the phlegmatic. It was an unfortunate terminology. It suggested bloodthirstiness, jaundice, and a bad cold. Perhaps the terminology was unable to live down these unfortunate suggestions, and therefore quietly died. At all events, it has vanished — which is just as well, for it was quite inadequate.

There are a great many more than three subdivisions of human nature: nearer three score. Chemistry has its seventy-odd elements, all equipped with their affinities or antipathies for each other, and from a careful manipulation of these we get our various chemical compounds. Why should we not say that humanity has its seventy-odd elements, or prismatic colors if you prefer, from a blending of which we get that wonderfully intricate and fascinating thing called ‘folks’?

That these subdivisions are worldwide and persistent is amply proved, to my mind, by the royal game of chess. My encyclopædia tells me that chess is an exceedingly ancient game, whose origins are uncertain, and that it may have been devised or invented by the Persians. Wherever and whenever it was originated, I insist upon believing that it was the work of some primitive psychologist, some shrewd, whimsical observer of mankind, who thought to beguile a leisure day by caricaturing a few of the typical human characteristics in a set of ivory images, and then out of their relations and interactions fabricating a game that should be indeed a royal game, fit for the diversion of caliphs and grand viziers.

For example, take the first piece that comes to hand, a pawn. I think I love him best, too. What does the pawn typify in human nature? What, but the great class of ordinary human duffers! He cannot do anything very well. His powers are exceedingly limited. He is exposed to danger from every side. Nobody cares when he is down and out. but he has his good points. He begins well, even if he does have to slow down. He plods straight ahead, one step at a time. He usually starts the ball rolling, and never goes backward, and never knows when he is beaten. Have a little care how you approach him, for with a sudden side thrust he will get you if you are within reach, be you proud prelate or haughty knight. And then, ‘once in a while, he can finish in style,’ when through the contemptuous carelessness of his superiors he quietly slips into the king row and assumes regal powers.

Here is the king. I am in doubt whether he typifies the moneyed proletarian or the timid politician. At all events, his function is to be protected, to profit by the labor of others. He is your true conservative. What he likes best is to get things in just the right position, and then keep them so. He hates to move, and when he does, it is only a step at a time, in any direction that is open, and only to avoid danger. He is timid and feeble and apprehensive. Yes indeed, I know a lot of kings.

Next to a pawn, I love a castle. He stands for the honest and forthright class. He is direct and powerful. He works straight up and down, straight right and left. His paths do not deviate. His angles are all square. He has a long arm, and is a power in the land.

But it is hard to love a bishop (I mean a chess bishop). He is just the antithesis of the castle: indirect, oblique, diagonal. He never comes at you squarely, but always on the slant. Just when you are about to perfect your position and win the game — Look out! there is a crafty, watchful figure lurking in the corner, ready to pounce sideways upon you, and bring you to ruin. I wonder why they called him a bishop.

We all know the class of people typified by the knight. They make an imposing appearance, and give promise of great ability. Show them the objective, and they will dash boldly at it, with a warning 4Have at you! ‘ But at the last moment they sidestep. You cannot say whether they will dodge to the right or to the left, but you are perfectly certain that so long as you stay directly in their path you are safe. Perhaps they are infirm of purpose. Perhaps second thought reminds them in the nick of time that discretion is the better part of valor. But they never carry a line of action straight out. Like the poor marksman, the one thing they never hit is the thing they aim at. It is easy to lose your temper over them, but at least they enliven the monotony of life. They introduce into every occasion the element of surprise.

‘Here’s to the flaunting, extravagant queen! ‘ Resourceful, powerful, without scruple or limit, regardless of all save her own regal will, headstrong, ruthless, proud, and domineering, committed by the exigencies of the game to the service and protection of her lord, and yet filled with patent contempt for the very thing she serves and protects, resenting the fate that obliges her to serve another when, by reason of her supreme ability, she feels herself qualified to command all — such is this queen. Without her, the game becomes a dull and perfunctory endeavor to postpone defeat. But so long as she is present hope never dies, and the game never loses its note of haughty defiance and aggressiveness. Yet, thank goodness, the class of people whom she represents is small. Without that class life would be stale and insipid; but with too many of them it would be unendurable.

I never see a chessboard with its pieces arranged, without seeing back of it, in dim fanciful outline, the various classes of people which its ivory pieces represent, with their various characteristics and self-consistencies. And I never watch the game played without telling myself that here in miniature is an epitome of the great game of human interactions and relationships.

It becomes inevitable to push the analogy one step farther. If only one could play the game of human life with something of the same knowledge as to the nature of the pieces employed, and with something of the same prevision as to their powers and limitations and the way they are bound to move, what an inordinate amount of disappointment and bad temper it would save. Most of the passionate reproach we feel toward our fellow men for their failure to do what we expect would much more justly be turned against ourselves. We are usually at fault in expecting them to do things they are not designed to do, in asking them to move in ways foreign to their nature. This might be avoided if we would take the trouble to get acquainted with human nature in its various types and groups, and to master the law of their characteristic moves. The player does not call his knight a fool because it cannot move like a bishop. He calls himself a fool for expecting such a thing. Similarly we have no ground for complaint if a man in the pawn class fails to act like a man in the queen class. How can he? He does not move that way. Our criticism might much better be reserved for ourselves. We have not studied the pieces. We have not learned their moves.

Of course the game of life employs a far greater number of pieces than can be accommodated upon a chessboard. We shall have to make room for many more participants. Here John Bunyan can help us tremendously. We can borrow at once his Mr. Talkative, Mr. Worldly Wiseman, Judge Legality, Neighbors Obstinate and Pliable, old Mr. Despondency, and his daughter Mistress Much-afraid. And, drawing upon our own experience, we may add many others — a piece in the form of an ostrich, who knows it all; another fashioned after the similitude of a goat, who is forever butting in; another armed with a hammer, the inveterate critic; still another running and breathless, always late. There are many more — some lovable, some not, but all interesting.

The great game loses none of its charm from these additions. It becomes more fascinating because more intricate. But no matter how numerous the pieces, the rules of the game remain unchanged. Study your pieces; learn their moves; then adjust yourself to them in such situations that the moves you expect them to make will be the moves which pieces of that nature are doomed to make — and there you are.

The Irishman who got his pigs to Dublin by heading them toward Cork had in him the makings of a chessplayer. If he possessed a knowledge of human nature comparable to his knowledge of pig nature, I venture to assert that he lived a quiet, contented, dispassionate, and profitable life. For if it is true that pigs is pigs, it is equally true that folks is folks.